Getting around downtown used to mean jumping in a car, fighting traffic, trying to squeeze into scarce parking spaces or waiting for a slow-moving bus. But some landlords are making it easy for office workers to dash about, get lunch and run errands, all without the waits or ringing up ride-sharing charges.
Workers at both 800 W. Fulton Market and 320 N. Sangamon St. in Fulton Market can now hop on electric scooters offered for free to tenants by building owners, without hunting for an available city scooter or e-bike and be certain their vehicles will be available when they need to return.
“If you have a lunch meeting that’s five minutes away, you can get on a scooter and then be right back in the office without breaking a sweat,” said Peter McEneaney, executive vice president of developer Thor Equities, which opened the 19-story 800 W. Fulton Market in 2021.
It’s transportation without delays or costs, and it cuts down on pollution and traffic congestion, he added. That’s popular with office workers, and ridership kept increasing after scooters were placed in the lobby in April. The vehicles can hit 15 miles per hour, greatly increasing the number of restaurants people can reach during lunchtime, just one of the perks that may entice employees back to the office.
“Putting scooters in 800 Fulton was really a test case for us, but we’re already looking at the possibility of rolling them out at our other properties around the country,” McEneaney said.
Electric scooters in the building give Brian Duffy peace of mind. A senior vice president with Stream Realty Partners, a tenant of 800 W. Fulton Market, he hops on one of the vehicles several times a week, often when a meeting is about to start, and wastes little time getting across town.
“It’s not unusual to have to wait 10 minutes for an Uber to show up, and forget trying to hail a cab,” he said. “I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve caught a cab in the past six months.”
City-administered scooter programs, including Chicago’s Divvy, got people comfortable zipping through the streets, according to Guru Medasani, founder and CEO of Chicago-based Ridy, which provides the scooters and charging stations at 800 W. Fulton Market and 320 N. Sangamon St. The building on Sagamon Street opened last year by developer Tishman Speyer, which co-developed the 13-story tower with Mark Goodman & Associates.
An engineer turned entrepreneur, Medasani started Ridy in 2019 after visiting Seattle’s Pike Place Market, he added. It was there, after walking several blocks before finding an e-bike, that he realized office workers on the clock sometimes don’t have the time to track down available public vehicles or a hired car and needed another option.
Ridy places scooters and charging stations inside residential communities or office buildings and restricts use to residents or tenants. Riders can lock scooters to bike racks after reaching their destinations, and quickly hop back on to return.
“It’s guaranteed to be available, so you don’t have to play this Pokemon-type game of finding vehicles,” Medasani said. “We don’t think public scooters are competition, we think they serve a purpose, but there’s a gap (in service), and we’re trying to fill that gap.”
Ridy bikes, scooters or charging stations are now in 11 states, including Florida, Texas, California and New York. Chicago-area communities with Ridy include North+Vine, an Old Town apartment complex, but over the past year, the company focused on landing contracts with office developers such as Thor Equities and Tishman Speyer.
“This is another cool amenity for people to get excited about,” said Catherine Hughey, general manager with JLL, the property manager of 800 W. Fulton Market.
JLL receives monthly reports from Ridy, and the data show riders from Aspen Dental, which leases about half the building, frequently travel to their second office several blocks away, while other riders venture as far as River North, sometimes in groups.
“People are getting outside, stepping away from their desks and going out to lunch,” Hughey said.
The trips for April and May would have cost tenants about $2,000 if they used Ubers, she added, but saving money is only part of Ridy’s appeal. Like several of the newest office towers in Fulton Market, 800 W. Fulton Market includes landscaped outdoor terraces and smart building systems that circulate fresh air and cut energy use, so helping tenants avoid using cars reinforces the focus on environmental concerns.
The ability to escape traffic congestion and delays is propelling big increases nationwide in the use of both e-bikes and scooters, and Chicago is no exception, according to Sandy Romero, global research manager with commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield.
Combined ridership for e-bikes in New York City was up 10% in April compared with April 2021, and San Francisco saw a 70% boost, while in Washington, D.C., rides were up 48%, said Romero, citing federal transportation data. And in Chicago, the city’s Divvy e-bike system, operated by Lyft, recorded 5.5 million rides in 2021, the most ever and up from 3.8 million in 2019, according to the Chicago Department of Transportation.
“There was a lull in use that happened because of COVID, but I think we’re over that,” she said.
Chicago is likely to see this year another big jump in the use of small electric vehicles. The city unveiled scooter pilot programs in 2019 and 2020, and just introduced its, with Divvy scooters already running throughout downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods, while scooter firms Lime, Spin and Superpedestrian also operate in the city.
Duffy lives about a mile and a half north of Fulton Market, and already takes advantage of the Divvy scooters to make the commute.
“During the summer months, I will hop on a scooter before I hop on a bus or a train,” he said. “It’s just quicker and easier.”
Private providers such as Ridy are a welcome addition to the mix, according to Alex Perez, advocacy manager for the Active Transportation Alliance, a Chicago-based advocate for cycling, walking and public transit.
“Any additional (e-vehicles) are good for the city, as each keeps one less driver off the road,” he said.
But as e-bikes and scooters proliferate, cities will need to expand infrastructure, especially dedicated bike lanes, that allow riders to get around safely, Perez added.
“People need somewhere safe to ride, and if there’s no proper infrastructure, they will opt for the sidewalks, and that’s what we don’t want,” he said.
The Lightfoot administration did commit last year to spending $17 million to add 100 miles of new or upgraded bike lanes by the end of 2022.
“The city has done a nice job of installing bike lanes,” according to Duffy. ”So, as long as you plan your routes carefully, you don’t feel as if you’re jammed up against buses or cars.”
Ridy also wants to provide e-bikes and e-scooters as amenities at parking garages. Starting this summer, drivers using the 3.8 million-square-foot downtown Millennium Garages near the lakefront will be able to pick up Ridy scooters after parking, part of an effort by nonprofit Civic Infrastructure Collaborative and the privately run Millennium Garages to encourage the use of electric vehicles, Medasani said. He hopes Ridy vehicles will help reduce downtown congestion by encouraging drivers to simply use the garage and hop on a Ridy, instead of circling their destination.
“They can use an electric scooter for that last mile, and don’t have to drive around to find that perfect parking space,” he said.